Monday, November 18, 2013

Is the American Detective Still a Knight



I sometimes teach detective fiction, and a really easy place to start any discussion is with the idea that the American detective is usually a knight.

The usual interpretation goes that American detective writers were helping to continue a tradition that began with the myth of the American cowboy. We were trying to create a mythology that every culture has -- knights, samurais, soldiers, cowboys, detectives -- the lone figure with little more than courage and a moral code as a guide.

The Europeans didn’t need to make their detectives knights because after all they had ... well ... knights.

I’ve been teaching Chandler and Stout and Hammett, and to a greater or lesser degree (lesser with Hammett) this stands up. But the world has changed and with the advent of new voices and smaller presses and a mythology that has been created, the detective as knight is disappearing or being replaced in many circles.

Just to be clear, the detective as knight still exists. Kinsey Milhone is a favorite among so many, and she’s a great example of the type. However, more and more writers are moving away from that kind of detective.

On television, so many of our detectives are the hyper-geniuses who are isolated from society -- the hallmark of the European detective. House, The Mentalist, Monk, Psych, and Bones  are just a few of the shows that highlight these kinds of detectives. It’s as though we as a society no longer have the need to define ourselves in this way.

In fiction, there has been a larger change, especially in the small press world. The Christy Bristol novels by Sunny Frazier for example follow an astrologer who occasionally works for the police and there have been a number of psychics who work for the police.

Where does this fit into the knighthood trope? If we were going to try to push this into some kind of shape that fit the updated medieval idea, well, I suppose they’d be the witches or the wizards taking over the job of knight. Good for them. Those characters have been sidekicks and villains too long already.

There are others too like William Doonan’s archeologist detectives from The Mummies from Blogspace 9, just out on Kindle this last week, and the serious professor in Horona Finkelstein and Susan Smiley’s Walk-In. These characters are both geniuses and knights.

What I always kind of hated about the knight trope is so many writers made their knights slightly stupid. The idea among these lesser writers was (I think) no amount of intelligence was needed as long as someone had the right morality.

The message now is different. What is it? Well, with so many people reading and writing now, it’s far too complicated to say.

That’s a trend I love.



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